Poetry | bit by bit, Leonarda Carranza

I usually try to keep my work life separate from my blogging life, but a couple of weeks ago, the Art Gallery of Mississauga (where I work) hosted a poetry event by a group of young writers whose words touched me on such a personal level that I wanted to share the experience. The group is called Pages on Fire, and their work explores themes of race and racism, love and oppression, body image and shame. I generally stay away from what I (unfairly) label as “message poetry,” and I admit poetry is in general not my genre of choice. But the range of works I heard that night, from the sharp edge of Renee McPhee’s “30 Lines by Beyonce” to the understated narrative power of Tina Chu’s poem on an immigrant family’s relationship with language (full disclosure: Tina is a close personal friend) takes the medium beyond its message. These are poems on race, oppression and so on, yes, but these are first and foremost, good poems from perhaps the next generation of Canadian poetry greats. 

Below is a poem by Pages on Fire organizer Leonarda Carranza. During the event, Carranza admitted she was reading this poem first, because she knew it would be difficult to get through. She was visibly choked up, and it took her several tries to get past the first verse. After the event, a woman approached her and said that she, too, was moved to tears by the reading. I love this poem for the subtle yet potent emotional wallop of the first couple of lines, which, by the end of the piece, have taken on a level of texture belied by the sparseness of the text.

[My apologies to Leonarda if WordPress messes up the text formatting. I tried to follow the spacing as best I could.]

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bit by bit

 

bit by bit and step by step

Grandma teaches me about

colours

Bit by bit

And step by step she teaches

And I learn

About the texture of indifference

What it feels like not to be wanted

not to be embraced or held

not to sit on her lap

Bit by bit

And step by step I learn

Not to expect a smile

Not to feel her

I don’t go to her when I’m afraid

I don’t ask for her when I am sick

And she teaches

like the mothers

and great-grandmothers that came before taught her

To stand back

To watch

As she offers herself and her love to

White and light skinned bodies

And bit by bit

And step by step

I learn about colour

- Leonarda Carranza

Review | Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, JonArno Lawson

9780889843547The text on the back cover refers to the world of poet JonArno Lawson as one “where sound rules supreme.” Sound is indeed the primary strength of the poems in this volume. The world he describes ranges from the fantastic where wolves live on the moon, to the mundane, where a boy is irritated at his friend’s absence. The poems in Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are meant to be read aloud. The poems I liked best are those that are pure wordplay: “A budgie in a buggy had a buddy with a grudge; / a toucan in a moving van had given him a nudge. / He nudged him back and nipped him, / but the toucan wouldn’t budge.”

Playful as it sounds however, that poem also has a bit of a dark tone to it — a toucan and a budgie’s friend got into an altercation on the road. This darker tone runs through quite a few of the poems, hinting at perhaps more adult themes than the singsongy rhythms imply. Take for example the absolute horror of the following imagery: “It’s easy to injure a gingerbread man / and a gingerbread injury’s bound to expand / from a foot to a leg from a head to a hand / when you’re eating him, eating him, fast as you can.” I know fairy tales and nursery rhymes are more violent than we would have realized as kids, and I suppose the fanciful rhythms will delight kids even though parents will see the more somber subtext.

I did think some of the poems were trying too hard to be clever, with sly references that may make the adult reader pause, but that are too obvious in their attempt to elicit praise. Take for example the one about Sleeping Beauty: “After Sleeping Beauty woke, she never slept again; / she feared another fairy attack, / and that’s why Sleeping Beauty’s now / a beautiful insomniac.” Clever little turn of phrase in the last line, but self-consciously so. I just thought it sad, and not as fun to read out loud as some of his other poems.

Or take the one about the twins whose lives begin “with twice the force” and have fun with bunk beds and double decker rocking horses. Except “what can be doubled can just as well be cut in half,” which makes the twins “sober up at once, of course.” All I could think of was, so what?

Still, a lot of the poems are fun wordplay, and definitely best read out loud. The book itself is beautiful, classic Porcupine’s Quill with paper cuts by Alec Dempster that add a bit of a stark, classical feel to poems. Teachers and parents of young and elementary school children may best appreciate Lawson’s poetry.

Review | Wayworn Wooden Floors, Mark Lavorato

There’s a reason this is my first poetry review on this blog: I don’t know much about it. I’ve studied some in school, of course, and I’ve bought a few books by poets I like (off the top of my head: Byron, Cohen, Layton and Purdy), but given a choice between prose and poetry, I almost always go for prose. So I love what Mark Lavorato says in the publisher’s page for Wayworn Wooden Floors:

But I would also love to have someone who has never bought a collection of poetry before pick it up. I would love for someone to be turned onto poetry because of it. I know that’s asking a lot. But I think that the poems throughout are really quite accessible, and for that reason, unintimidating. And I would love for that person to read Wayworn Wooden Floors, and in doing so, see that poetry — arguably the world’s oldest art form — is something that has been around forever for a reason.

Lavorato’s poetry is certainly accessible; his language is simple and straightforward. When I like poets, it’s usually because the sense of rhythm in their words is so strong that it propels me through the piece, or because their imagery is so unusual that it captures my imagination. I didn’t quite get that experience with Lavorato’s poetry — I liked his poems, but they didn’t transport me.

That being said, there are some poems and some parts of poems that really struck me. I really liked “This World,” the first poem and the source for the book’s title. “This World,” Lavorato writes, “is the sprawling attic / of an abandoned building / murmuring to its own musty heights.” The comparison appealed to the romantic and the mystery lover in me, and I love the melancholy, heavy, almost oppressive imagery — “the moon heaves,” for example, and “Wayworn wooden floors lie / as if in wait for the dust to settle.” The overall sensation is fatigue; Lavorato’s imagery calls up the notion of a world longing for release. My favourite verse:

Dried wasps coil on the windowsills,

endowed, still, with a sting

for a tidying hand.

I love that final, futile bit of defiance, and I just love the phrase “sting for a tidying hand.”

I also really liked “Maps of Antiquity,” mostly because I love the first two lines: “Back when the world had edges / and was fringed with tentative shores,” I just love the sound of those lines, the unexpected idea of the world having edges, and the idea of “tentative shores” forming a fringe. The poem goes on to a more ordinary ending, in my opinion, and so fell flat for me overall, but the beginning really stuck with me.

Finally, I also liked “Fingerpaintings,” where Lavorato seamlessly integrates into his verses lyrics from nursery rhymes. Part III for example, my favourite in this poem, begins: “It was Einstein said we’d fight / the Fourth World War with / Sticks and stones.” The section goes on to talk about war, integrating within the lines the children’s ditty “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names with never hurt me.” Other than the clever conceit of including the saying so seamlessly, there is also the irony of the line “names will never hurt me,” given the historical context of war. In World War II, for example, being called a Jew can most certainly hurt you, and on so many disturbing levels. Lavorato also includes a sly description of “that mushrooming / knowledge of perfect decimation,” clearly referring to the atomic bomb and its genesis in Einstein’s theory.

Most of the poems, however, didn’t really stand out to me. I mostly found them okay, though I fully admit people who read a lot of poetry may appreciate it better. Take for example “A Handful of Seeds.” It had a beginning that I found promising: “My father teared at movies. / His hobby, though, / was taking life.” It turns out that the speaker’s father is a hunter, until he injures his leg and makes friends with birds. It should be a touching scene, the injured hunter feeding birds seeds, but I just found it sappy. The description of birds, “Light feathered bodies / dainty with hollow bones, / hovering like spectators in a gallery” strikes me as a fairly standard description of birds. I like the unexpected metaphor in poetry, as in fiction, the phrase that makes me sit up and pay attention.

Still, it’s a beautiful book, as all Porcupine’s Quill titles are. I also like Lavorato’s idea about poetry: “I would like to impress upon readers that their lives are filled with as much poetry as any other. It is simply the magnification and the Petri dish that make it verse.” (from the publisher’s website) If you’re interested in checking out Wayworn Wooden Floors for yourself, Lavorato has a couple of upcoming appearances:

Tuesday, June 19, 6 pm
Paragraphe Librairie/Bookstore. Mark will be reading from this new collection.
Located at 2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal

Thursday, June 21, 6 pm
Nicholas Hoare Books. Reading and Celebrating.
Located at 45 Front St. E., Toronto
www.nicholashoare.com

Want to want to win a copy of this book? I’m giving my copy to Nicholas Hoare Books to give away on or before their event with the poet. Follow them on Twitter (@NicholasHoareTO) for an upcoming contest to win the book, and drop by their event to get it signed!

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Thank you to Porcupine’s Quill for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Poem | Water & Marble, P.K. Page

And shall I tell him that the thought of him
turns me to water
and when his name is spoken pale still sky
trembles and breaks and moves like blowing water
that winter thaws its frozen drifts in water
all matter blurs, unsteady, seen through water
and I, in him, dislimn, water in water?

As true: the thought of him
has made me marble
and when his name is spoken blowing sky
settles and freezes in a dome of marble
and winter seals its floury drifts in marble
all matter double-locks as dense as marble
and I, in others’ eyes, am cut from marble.

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I see this poem on the Toronto subway often, and I just love it. It’s a bright spot on a stressful commute, and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful poem. I especially love the sound of “and I, in him, dislimn” and the rhythm created by the repetition of “water” and “marble.” I can probably keep going on about all the things I love about this poem, but really, all I want to do is share it with you all.

Enjoy!